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10 March 2021

As the Merkel era approaches its end, the German left has several paths to the chancellery

Berlin is buzzing with potential coalitions, but after a damaging year the CDU might benefit from a period in opposition. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

Germany’s federal election is drawing nearer. The country’s politics is rarely straightforward for Brits and Americans: a thicket of acronyms, hard-to-pronounce names and odd shorthands (hands up if you can explain the difference between a “Jamaica” and a “traffic light” coalition without googling), all wrapped up in a multicoloured 16-state federal, proportional electoral system where power goes not to the party that comes first but to the parties that together can form a viable coalition with a majority.

Yet it really is worth taking the time to understand the basics. The vote on 26 September will probably be the most significant international election of 2021 and, in the continent’s largest economy, an important guide to Europe’s future. With Angela Merkel stepping down after almost 16 years as German chancellor, it will also be an epoch-defining showdown.

Let’s start by running through the seven parties in the German Bundestag, or parliament. The largest is Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which sits with and puts up a common chancellor candidate with the Christian Social Union (CSU). The CSU runs only in the state of Bavaria; the CDU runs in the other 15 states. Together they govern with the venerable, centre-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The opposition comprises the right-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the surging, centre-left Greens and the socialist Left party.

[See also: Why pro-Europeans should be incensed about the EU’s vaccines debacle]

The big topic in Berlin these days is which of two men will lead the post-Merkel CDU/CSU into this September’s election as chancellor candidate. Armin Laschet, the CDU minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, is a clubbable moderate whose dovish views on China and Russia alarm some of Germany’s international allies. As the newly elected leader of his party, he is the front-runner.

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The alternative would be Markus Söder, the canny minister-president of the state of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, whose erstwhile flirtation with the right has given way to a centrist, environmentalist turn. It has long been assumed that the CDU/CSU candidate will end up leading the next German government as chancellor.

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That is no longer so certain, though. Germany’s vaccine roll-out has been slow. The CDU/CSU was recently rocked by two resignations after it was revealed that MPs had profited from government deals to bulk-buy masks. The big poll boost that it enjoyed at the start of the pandemic is dissolving.

The CDU is predicted to suffer painful defeats at two state elections on 14 March. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the home state of the late CDU patriarch Helmut Kohl, a “traffic light” coalition of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP, so-called as the three parties’ colours are red-green-yellow, will likely remain in power. In Baden-Württemberg, a traditional CDU stronghold where many expected the party to win back primacy from the Greens, it looks set to fall even further behind. The worse the CDU does, the higher the chance that the CDU/CSU will turn from Laschet to Söder.

[See also: How Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech has been misunderstood]

It is widely assumed that the CDU/CSU will lead the next German government, probably at the helm of a coalition with the Greens. Germany’s Greens took off in the 1980s as a party of radicals rooted in the 1968 European protest movement, but they have since mellowed into a centre-left party with a sharper focus on human rights and the environment, and a younger voter base, than the SPD. Whether Laschet or Söder ends up as the centre-right chancellor candidate, a “black-green” coalition remains the most likely outcome of the federal election in six months.

But it is not the only possible outcome. Perhaps the post-Merkel CDU/CSU will do yet another deal with the SPD, which has already governed as its junior partner for 12 of the past 16 years. But another possibility that few outside Germany have yet noticed is one in which the chancellery, and with it the leadership of Europe’s largest economy, falls to the left.

Several such scenarios for the forthcoming election are doing the rounds in Berlin. The first is that the CDU is weakened by Germany’s pandemic response and Merkel’s departure, and that the Greens, SPD and the FDP together have the numbers for a traffic-light coalition. While the FDP would not be a comfortable coalition partner for the two centre-left parties, its struggling leader, Christian Lindner, needs to show that he can get his party into government.

The second scenario involves a coalition of the Greens, the SPD and the Left party. The last descends directly from the former East German communist party, so has long been considered an unacceptable coalition partner, but the centrist SPD chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, has now for the first time kept open the chance of an all-left government that includes the Left. Scholz is one of three putative left-of-centre chancellors: the others being the Greens’ leaders, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck.

My view? I think that the CDU/CSU would benefit from a period of post-Merkel renewal in opposition. And I think Baerbock of the Greens is the best available German chancellor – and that she could do good things at the helm of a coalition with the SPD and the FDP or the Left party.

While I have time for the more moderate elements of the Left party, and no time for the nationalist streaks in the FDP, I tend to think that the Left’s authoritarian past and the FDP’s solid policies on the digital economy (on which Germany remains far too conservative) make a Green-SPD-FDP traffic light coalition the best possible outcome for Germany and Europe. Bring it on. 

[See also: Why are millions of doses of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines lying unused in EU countries?]

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This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation